A-Rod deal won't be big easy

With the exception of the now infamous week in Dallas in December of 2000, baseball's winter meetings have mostly been all talk and no action in recent years.

It would seem that's now about to change.

As baseball gathers in New Orleans this weekend, a certain momentum has already been established. Even before the meetings, you could begin piecing together a pretty fair All-Star pitching staff of players who've changed teams since the end of the season: Curt Schilling, Andy Pettitte, Bartolo Colon, Javier Vazquez, Eric Milton and Kelvim Escobar in the rotation; Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill and Tim Worrell setting up; Billy Wagner and Eddie Guardado closing.

Now, it's time for the position players to begin moving. Not just any position players, either. First-name only players: A-Rod. Nomar. Manny. And that's just the start.

Who says the winter meetings are dead?

Here are five things to watch for in the Crescent City:

The Alex Rodriguez-for-Manny Ramirez trade
As the meetings got set to open, the biggest deal of all seemed to have stalled some. Texas owner Tom Hicks is adamant that the Red Sox chew up some of Ramirez' remaining money to facilitate the deal. The Sox, already set to absorb the $184 or so million remaining on A-Rod's contract, are just as adamant about not paying a penny more.

While it's been theorized that so much has been invested in the deal that it's taken on a certain inevitability, that isn't the case according to several baseball executives in contact with both teams.

The Red Sox aren't about to extend themselves further than they should financially, regardless of their interest in Rodriguez. Though Hicks has been inflexible, he needs this deal more than Boston.

If the Rangers retain Rodriguez, they risk having an unhappy superstar with a strained relationship with his manager. They've finished fourth in each of his three seasons in Arlington, and without moving him, they can't get the pitching they need to be competitive.

The Sox, on the other hand, would much prefer Ramirez and his attendant baggage rather than subsidize him to play elsewhere. If the teams remain status quo, the Sox have a very good chance to win the pennant while Texas probably can't finish as high as third place in the competitive AL West.

As for Nomar Garciaparra, he too is likely to stay put.

As recently as a week ago, Garciaparra was something of an innocent bystander in all of this. The Sox weren't looking to deal him, but if they were to obtain Rodriguez, they'd have no choice but to move him as a sort of unintended consequence to the mega-deal with Texas.

But that was before Garciaparra's agent, Arn Tellem, publicly and angrily blasted the Red Sox' handling of this, which resulted in Boston owner John Henry (uncharacteristically) firing back.

Still, unless the Sox could secure Miguel Tejada as a replacement, they won't deal Garciaparra. They'd rather take one more shot at it all and risk losing him a year from now than go through the 2004 season without his offensive production.

The Yankees play catch-up
It's an unaccustomed position for the Yanks to be in, for sure, but the Yankees have some ground to make up. While they've upgraded their bullpen with Gordon and Quantrill and added Vazquez, they've also lost Roger Clemens and Pettitte.

The tentative acquistion of Kevin Brown would help, but other holes exist, especially with the status of Gary Sheffield up in the air.

Do the Yanks risk playing Bernie Williams in center? Do they shift Hideki Matsui to center and DH Williams? Who plays right if Sheffield doesn't? Do they need insurance for Jason Giambi at first base?

The irony in all of this, of course, is that only a few years ago, owner George Steinbrenner didn't send GM Brian Cashman to the meetings. The Yankees were in the middle of a stretch which saw them win four titles in five seasons, and the whole process seemed somehow beneath them.

No longer. Expect the Yankees to be right in the thick of things this weekend, even if most of the strings will be pulled via Tampa.

Big-name free agents
There's still plenty of stars available, some of whom haven't fielded much in the way of official offers.

Of these, Vladimir Guerrero, Keith Foulke, Pudge Rodriguez and Tejada are the most attractive. But there's a long list of others (Javy Lopez, Greg Maddux, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro) who could have new baseball homes by next week.

It's almost beyond belief that, arguably, the most talented position player on the market (Guerrero) and an MVP one-year-removed (Tejada) have attracted so little interest.

Payroll-mandated deals
The Twins could move outfielder Jacque Jones. The White Sox might part with either Carlos Lee or Magglio Ordonez. The Cardinals will trade J.D. Drew. All trades would be made with an eye toward the bottom line.

It's strange, but baseball's new fiscal sanity may result in more old-fashioned trades being made. Most, however, will be made under a sort of imaginary salary cap: the deals won't be made unless an equal amount of salary is exchanged.

The waiting game
For some mid-level free agents, a holding pattern could continue as general managers wait for the second wave of free agents to flood the market on Dec. 20.

That's the date by which teams must offer players not yet eligible for free agency contracts for next season.

As many as 100 more players could be granted free agency, further depressing the market and giving teams additional options -- none of whom will require them to forfeit draft picks as compensation.

When the Red Sox waited for David Ortiz and Kevin Millar -- both non-tenders last winter -- they got 197 RBI from the pair on discount contracts. That will spur some teams to wait and see whom else might be available before committing to the "traditional'' free agents.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.